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Toddlers & Preschoolers

Play, Learning and Development

Importance of Play

Importance of play

Toddlers and preschoolers love to help you with everyday activities. Let them help you sweep the floor, count items at the grocery store, and get themselves dressed. Build play into these everyday activities (and more) and you'll help your child to learn, grow and meet his milestones.

As a parent, you are your child's very first and most favourite playmate. You don't need expensive toys or fancy equipment to enjoy playing with your child. Spend time together trying simple games, playing actively outside, making crafts with household items or reading a library book.

The following are guiding principles parents can use when deciding on activities for their toddler/preschooler:

  • Let your child lead the play by telling you what she would like to do.

  • If you are using puzzles, games or toys, make sure they are recommended for your child’s age to reduce frustration for both of you.

  • If she does become frustrated, tell her what she did well and gently move on to another activity. This can be an opportunity to name and talk about emotions with your child and how it feels to be angry, sad or happy.

  • Allow your toddler or preschooler to have at least 180 minutes of physical activity in different environments spread throughout the day. Work towards at least 60 minutes of energetic play by the time he is 5 years of age.

  • Set up indoor and outdoor areas that meet or exceed recommended safety standards in which your toddler or preschooler can perform ‘large muscle activities’, such as running or jumping. Taking the time to play outdoors with your child makes him feel important and helps him feel good about himself.

  • Encourage your toddler or preschooler to move in all kinds of ways, like:
    • exploring his environment
    • crawling
    • climbing stairs
    • playing outside

    These movements are building blocks that will allow him to develop skills for more challenging movements.

  • As he gets older, he will need more energetic play, like:
    • fast walking
    • running
    • dancing
    • hopping
    • jumping
    • skipping
    • bike riding

  • Try a variety of activities that develop movement skills in different environments.

Benefits of Active Play and Movement

  • Your child could benefit in the following way
    • healthy body weight
    • improved movement skills
    • increased fitness
    • a healthy heart
    • having fun
    • feeling happy
    • developing self-confidence
    • improved learning and attention

Some forms of active play, such as playing catch, kicking a ball together or throwing a ball into a laundry basket, can help your child to learn and develop in several ways:

  • Practise eye-hand coordination and muscle control
  • Learn to solve simple problems through ‘trial and error’, such as how hard to throw or kick the ball to get it to you, how to place his arms and hands to catch it, or where to stand to get the ball into the basket.
Your toddler or preschooler should not spend more than one hour at a time sitting still or being restrained (while awake), such as in a stroller or high chair. This is often called "sedentary time".

For more information:

Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines for the Early Years 0 – 4 Years, Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology – CSEP

Ways to play:

12-18 months
Your child will begin to:

  • Run, kick a ball, ride on small-wheeled toys, squat when playing.

You can:

  • Allow your child to play with food and utensils. This helps him to learn and also makes meal time fun!
  • Dance to music and use riding toys with your child.
  • Take the stroller (or walk, once your child is able) to the park to run around or play with a ball.
  • Read to your child every day. Change your voice, talk about the pictures and use puppets and stuffed animals to make book time fun.
  • Provide encouragement during play - you'll be rewarded with smiles and laughs.

18 months to 2 1/2 years
Your child will begin to:

  • Walk upstairs and downstairs, climb over furniture, jump with two feet off the ground, walk backwards and sideways.

Playing with your child helps them grow and develop!
You can:

  • Encourage your child to talk as you play together. Ask your child to repeat words that you say. Name items around the house and at the grocery store. You can help build language skills every single day!
  • Pretend play with your child. Pretend play helps your child learn about real life experiences. Use old clothes, handbags and shoes to play make believe. Role playing is a great way to help your child explore and express her feelings.
  • Stimulate your child's sense of touch by letting her feel items with different textures (e.g. velvet, sand paper, peach fuzz, pine cones and more). Sensory play is important at this age. Be creative! Ask your child to describe the feel of each item (soft, fuzzy, scratchy, etc.).
  • Take a walk in your neighbourhood and ask your toddler to show you different objects (tree, house, flower, car, truck, dog, etc.).
  • Begin to teach your child some simple active games, such as 'Tag' or 'Hide and Seek'.
  • Plan an outing to the park to use the playground equipment.
  • Play with different colours and sizes of balls. Talk about their colours and which is ‘biggest’ and ‘smallest.’

2 1/2 to 3 1/2 years
Your child will begin to:

  • Build and create activities using blocks or cardboard boxes.
  • Play with other children. This helps your child learn how to get along with others.

You can:

  • Build caves, forts or castles in your backyard using boxes and blankets. Pillows and cushions can be added indoors.
  • Use common, inexpensive household materials to do crafts together.
  • Collect and use cardboard boxes, pie plates, paper towel rolls, old wrapping paper, used envelopes, aluminum pie plates and pine cones to make crafts and sculptures. Being creative at a young age helps your child learn to deal with new situations as she gets older.
  • Provide ‘dress-up’ clothes for your child and their friends. You can use old clothes your family are no longer wearing, or buy some inexpensively from a thrift store. The children can try different roles as they play (mother, father, baby, teacher, doctor). Role playing helps your child learn to interact with others and to express her feelings.   
  • Set up ‘play dates’ for your child or visit your local Ontario Early Years Centre together.
  • Get messy - splash in water, clay, or mud, which are favourites at this age.
  • Try counting around the house or at the grocery store to build play into everyday activities.
  • Enjoy active outdoor play in different seasons: plant seeds, run through the sprinkler, jump in fallen leaves, make snow angels.

3 1/2 to 4 1/2 years
Your child will begin to:

  • Climb on a jungle gym, stand on one foot, ride a tricycle, throw a ball, hop.
  • Run, jump, play and climb. Children at this age have lots of energy - use it! It will help keep you healthy too.

You can:

  • Play "Follow the Leader", "Simon Says" , “Duck, Duck, Goose” and other action games with your child.
  • Spend time together outdoors every day. Explore trees, fallen leaves, grass, snow and puddles. Dance in the rain!
  • Use books, language games and story telling to increase your child's verbal skills.
  • Listen to different kinds of music with your child. The part of the brain that learns about music is the same area used for math skills.
  • Help your child “act out” her favourite story as you read it.
  • Encourage your child to draw, paint, cut and paste, letting him decide what he will make. This helps him be creative and practise using his fingers and hands – sometimes called ‘fine motor skills’. Make clean-up easier by providing a small table (or corner of a larger table) with a plastic tablecloth or newspaper underneath.
  • Ask your child to tell you her own stories about the pictures. Telling her own stories helps form connections in her brain between imagination and language. It also lets her make decisions and show her feelings.
  • Make up and sing silly songs together.
  • Share stories about your day.
  • Build with cubes, do puzzles and play memory games. Simple puzzles help your child learn problem-solving skills.
  • Try ‘indoor bowling’ with a large soft ball and several plastic or paper cups.

4 1/2 to 6 years
Your child will begin to:

  • Throw and catch a ball, balance on one foot, gallop, toss beanbags into holes, and skip.

You can:

  • Ask your child to help you with tasks around the house and thank him for being such a good helper.
  • Be creative - make crafts with objects from around the house.
  • Make a puppet theatre out of a large box. Using puppets lets your child use her imagination and try out different roles.
  • Play with letters and numbers to teach children skills they need for school.
  • Ask your child to spell or write their name. This gives your child confidence.
  • Allow your child to help with cooking and kitchen chores. Use the opportunity to talk about healthy food choices and food preparation.
  • Play board games like 'Snakes and Ladders' or simple card games. Games and team sports help your child learn to take turns, negotiate, problem-solve and get along with others. Games with rules become a part of play for children 4 1/2 to 6 years old.
  • Borrow a children’s nature book from the library. Plan a ‘hike’ to a nearby park or conservation area. Try to find different trees, flowers, birds or animals as you walk together.
  • When you’re travelling in the car or on the bus, use this time to talk about what you see, hear or smell. You can also talk about the different traffic signs and what they mean.
  • Try different kinds of ‘races’ in the park: jumping or hopping races, pillow-case or sack races.

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Revised: Friday February 17 2023

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